NEW YORK — There’s no question who the two best teams in the WNBA are. But I’m not sure whether the Las Vegas Aces are the best at the moment. Not after Monday’s performance at the Barclays Center in downtown Brooklyn.
The truth is, the New York Liberty may very well be better at this point after Sabrina Ionescu, Breanna Stewart and Co. took it to the Aces, who were wrapping up a four-game road trip which saw them go 2-2. The final score of 94-85 tells some of the story. But what’s going to happen when and if these two teams play for all the marbles in October?
Let’s put it this way: the Liberty are not intimidated by the Aces. Not one iota.
“These players want to win,” said Liberty coach Sandy Brondello. “They hold themselves accountable.”
You watch the games between these teams and you can’t help but wonder how much the Aces miss Candace Parker, who has been out with a broken foot and may not be back in time for the WNBA Finals. They miss her experience, her ability, her defense and rebounding and her supplemental scoring.
Most nights, Parker’s absence doesn’t register a blip on the radar as A’ja Wilson, Jackie Young, Chelsea Gray and Kelsey Plum are more than enough to get Las Vegas to the winner’s circle. But against the Liberty, which is super talented and has been clicking on all cylinders for the better part of two months now, the Aces have a formidable foe to deal with. If you watched the dismantling of the Aces by the Libs in the NBA Commissioner’s Cup earlier this month at Michelob Ultra Arena and you still don’t believe New York is legit, well, you’re simply in self-denial.
It’s not just the Liberty’s ability to shoot threes, break down the Aces off the dribble, finish at the basket and move the ball efficiently. There’s a mental side to it and no one on the Aces, not coach Becky Hammon, not Wilson, Young, Gray or any of the players would ever admit New York has gotten in their heads.
But results are what matter at this level and you don’t earn trips to the White House by falling behind by 19 points and having to play uphill to try and get back in it.
Yes, Las Vegas has beaten New York without Parker. It happened a couple of nights following that 82-63 blowout win by the Liberty in the Commissioner’s Cup. But when a key component is missing, it’s on everyone to pick up the slack.
That wasn’t the case Monday. Gray and Plum were a combined 1 for 10 from the field in the first 20 minutes and finished with a combined 25 points on 7-of-27 shooting with Gray getting most of hers at the foul line (9 of 12). That’s simply not good enough. Especially against a quality team like the Liberty.
To their credit, the Aces kept grinding. They got as close as 90-82 with 1:22 to play and Plum having fouled out earlier in the fourth.
“It seems like we have one bad quarter and it gets us,” said Wilson, who had 23 points but was quiet in the second quarter when New York outscored Las Vegas 25-16 to lead 47-35 at the half. “It starts with defense and we’ve got to get stops.”
The Aces, despite a two-game losing streak and a 30-6 record, still lead the Liberty by 1.5 games with four to play. Getting the top seed and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs is important. So it’s highly unlikely Hammon will be resting her stars down the stretch. It could very well come down to a decisive Game 5 in the Finals and if form holds up and the Aces and the Liberty are the last two teams standing, you want to be playing that game in your building.
“There’s not a lot of room for error against this team,” Hammon said of the Liberty. “They have a lot of firepower.”
And while it would be ridiculous to think the Aces will be overlooking any of their potential postseason opponents to fixate on the Liberty, a confidence boost might be in order and perhaps some good news from the doctor’s office on Parker. That may be the best remedy of all for what ails the Aces.